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Political Correctness Fail

Posted by on September 7, 2012

The conversation screeched to a halt and I was met with staring faces: two shocked (my Canadian friends) and one amused and what-have-you-done-now? (Varun).

Me: Um. What?

B: You said ‘Eskimo’.

(Apparently this requires no further explanation)

Me: Yeah. As in, igloos. I don’t get it. Is this a bad word?

A: We do not say Eskimo in Canada!

(Expectant silence. I think my apology would go here)

Varun: Oh! Is it like calling someone [insert racially inappropriate term here]?

Me: Varun!

A and B: (Thoroughly scandalized)

A: Amelia. How can you have lived in Canada for 6 years and not know that? The correct term is Inuit.

[Don’t worry, these girls are my dear friends and have stuck by me through much worse.]

As humorous as this moment was, it was also an intriguing reminder that beneath my poutine-cooking ways and long vowels, I’m not Canadian. Somehow, I missed the Eskimo memo.

As I thought about it, I began to be concerned that maybe this wasn’t an America/Canada thing, maybe this is jut a political correctness fail. Thankfully, my Dad hit up Wikipedia and clarified everything:

The term Eskimo is commonly used by those in the lower 48 and in Alaska to include both Yupik and Inupiat. No universal term other than Eskimo, inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people, exists for the Inuit and Yupik peoples.[1] In Canada and Greenland, the term Eskimo has fallen out of favour, as it is sometimes considered pejorative and has been replaced by the term Inuit.

My Dad’s email concluded with a typical Dad-line, “Hey, wait a minute, didn’t you have an entire course on this?”

Oh dear. The man never forgets when he shells out cash for me to take a course of circumpolar geography.

For my American amigos (are we allowed to say ‘amigos’?), Nunavut is the northernmost territory in Canada. As you might imagine, Geography of Nunavut was less than jam-packed. The class consisted of our professor leaning against his desk sporting moccasins and drinking coffee out of a worn tin mug while telling stories. For an entire semester he regaled us with his adventures in Nunavut, braving blizzards, researching seal migration and learning Inkutitut (ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ)). I don’t remember the banning of the word Eskimo, but I do remember being very hung up on the fact that the capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit, has a population of 6,699. People.

Iqaluit

The Inuit, as I’m told they like to be called, are amazingly resilient people. Seriously. Do some googling about northern Canada. And then go outside and embrace the waning days of summer. And please do not say ‘Eskimo’ at a Canadian luncheon.

10 Responses to Political Correctness Fail

  1. yourothermotherhere

    I just now finished watching “The Fast Runner” and I’m glad to have read your post before I made a faux pas discussing it. Thank you.

    • Amelia

      Never seen it. Would you recommend it?

      • yourothermotherhere

        It’s subtitled and there is male full frontal nudity, but it’s part of the story (he is running away nude over ice and snow). I would recommend it as a way to understand a bit of the Inuit culture and just to enjoy as a pretty good movie.

  2. Adelle Farrelly

    Interesting! Another example, though not as severely frowned upon by most Canadians, is the term “Indian,” interestingly enough. My father was Metis (making me also Metis) and I did quite a bit of travelling with him “up north,” and from a very early age we were taught that Indians are from India, and that appropriate terms for describing ourselves and others were Native, Native American, Aboriginal, First Nations, Innu, or Metis, Ojibwa, Cree, Mohawk, etc as the case may be. I think that the term “American Indian” is far more widely used in the US (without controversy as far as I know). But even here, where we used to have “Indian and Northern Affairs Canada” (until VERY recently, as in I think about a year ago) we now have “Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.” Bottom line, I guess, is to try our very best to call people by the name they have chosen for themselves (and this can differ–many Natives, including my own relatives, happily use the word “Indian” to describe themselves, though I never have and never will if only for the sake of clarity!). Anyway sorry for the long comment!

    • Amelia

      Thanks for sharing, Adelle. I think you’re right, the bottom line is to call people what they prefer. I had no idea you’re Metis! Neat. Thanks for filling me in on the terms….
      I’ve always found it amusing that over 600 years after Columbus we still use the misnomer of Indian. Especially now that I’m married to an Indian from India. When people ask if he’s “indian, like, from India?” it reminds me of how strange the entire situation is.

      Thanks for your comment!!

  3. Julie

    See, and I grew up in Northern Alberta, where the Indians were, indeed, card carrying “Treaty Indians.” The WANTED to be called Indians, were proud of the designation and the heritage it implied, and did NOT like “American Indian” or Aboriginal. Tribe names and more specific names were alright, as was simply Natives but not usually Native Indian, etc. Because of this the Indians-from-India were often called “East Indians,” especially among my dad’s generation. (Dad would also say Eskimo… my siblings and I would be reticent to do so.)

    Slightly related: my (United States of) American boyfriend was quite appalled to be called Yank and Yankee by my siblings this summer. He kept saying, “don’t they know that that’s a certain area or certain stance? Don’t they know?” Meanwhile my brother was all “don’t have the audacity to think you’re the ONLY Americans on the Western hemisphere.”

    We may come from similar heritages (Germanic from various places, leaving the Old Country at vastly different times) and speak the same language (usually… so many differences!) but all-so-often we’re reminded that we *did* grow up in different cultures. (Me knowing all the words to the random country hits and his first rodeo and him taking me on my first ferriswheel ride after having my first corndog at a country fair….)

    • Amelia

      Wow, fascinating that you grew up using the term Indian while Adelle didn’t. And I totally agree with your BF, I hate being called a Yankee. It doesn’t sound awesome to my American ears. So funny! Thanks for sharing your experiences! Keep ’em coming!

  4. Chelsea

    I seem to recall him also spitting into his tin mug, as well as taking off his boots to show us where his toes fell off. Now THAT was a story.

  5. mynextlifewillbe

    Actually this is seems to be not just a Canadian thing. Even as a kid reading books or magazine articles about other places, it was always explained that eskimo is a insult that refers to eating raw fish (and/or meat) that was given by other people and the people themselves prefer Inuit. I have always assumed it would be total jerkness to insist on calling them eskimo if they see it as an insult, so even when reading older texts id try to make note that correctly inuit should be used. And im totally baffled that people still call them eskimos? And if i read this post right inuit isnt the correct way they want to called ?? Hmmhmm.. i am confused now.

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